If eBay Ran the Election

How the dismal science applies to your life.
Nov. 1 2000 3:00 AM

If eBay Ran the Election

Who would buy the votes and what would they pay? 

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At Vote-auction.com, you can sell your presidential vote. At least you could sell your vote up until a couple of days ago, when an judge from Cook County, Ill. (ironically, the traditional vote-fraud capital of the world), issued a restraining order. Now you can exchange your vote for a "voluntary donation."

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Here's how Vote-auction.com works: Say you live in Massachusetts. You sign up to join the "Massachusetts voting bloc," which (as of this writing) has 731 members. The entire block is auctioned off eBay-style, and the winning bid—excuse me, the winning voluntary donation—is divided evenly among the bloc's members in exchange for their absentee ballots. The current high bid for the Massachusetts bloc is $4,000, or $6.08 per vote. That's pretty low, presumably because everybody already knows who's going to carry Massachusetts. (The Texas bloc is going for an even lower $4.19 per vote.) If you live in hotly contested Michigan, your vote is now worth $22.73.

Even so, only 1,429 Michigan voters have signed up—almost surely too few to change the outcome. But the Internet is in its infancy and this is only the beginning. By 2004, Internet vote-selling could be as ubiquitous as Internet porn.

Not that there's anything truly new under the sun. In 1769, the great legal scholar William Blackstone opposed universal suffrage because he feared that the poor would sell their votes. To whom? Blackstone thought the answer was obvious: The rich would buy votes from the poor and use their enhanced political power to exploit the middle class.

But that's not obvious at all. Why shouldn't the middle class buy all the votes and use them to exploit the rich? It won't do to respond that the rich have more money. That only makes them a more tempting target. Why can't a middle-class coalition buy votes on credit, win the election, take from the rich and give to themselves, pay off their debts, and have plenty left over?

Another great legal scholar, Judge Richard Posner, has an answer: The middle class is just too big. Large coalitions invite free-riding. As long as each of your neighbors buys 10 votes, why bother buying any yourself? After all, it's astronomically unlikely that your personal contribution can change the election outcome. Everyone reasons that way, nobody contributes to the general enterprise, and the coalition breaks down.

The rich, by contrast, at least in Blackstone's day, were few enough in number that they might have been able to hold a coalition together. Today, in a world where everyone's a dot-com millionaire, that's far less likely to be true.

You could argue that one extremely wealthy individual—let's call him B.G. for Big Guy—might overcome the free-rider problem by forming a coalition of one, buy all the votes, and take over the world. But it's far from clear he'd be successful. More likely, he'd end up in a bidding war against those who fear him the most, and the price of votes would be bid up to the point where B.G. might just as well give up.

In a world where votes are bought and sold, how do you form a coalition that's both big enough to outbid the competition and small enough to exclude free-riders? Probably you can't, so you've got to attack the free-rider problem some other way—say by cultivating charismatic leaders capable of inspiring members to contribute even when it goes against their narrowly defined self-interest.

Those leaders would raise money from coalition members, use it to buy votes, buy additional votes on credit, get themselves elected, extract wealth from their enemies, pay off their debts to voters, and distribute the remaining proceeds to the members of the coalition. If that sounds vaguely familiar, it's probably because you live in a similar world.

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